Review: American Heritage History of the Confident Years

American Heritage History of the Confident Years, Francis Russell. New York: New Word City, 2016 (originally published in 1969).

Summary: A survey of American history during the period between the Civil War and World War 1, 1866-1914.

For many of us it is the period of American history about which we know the least. It was a period of mostly undistinguished presidents, one of whom escaped a conviction of impeachment by a single vote. But it was also a time during which the United States truly became a global power, setting the stage for its role in the first World War. It was the period of Reconstruction, and the dashing of new found hopes of African-Americans. It was the time of the rise of industrial tycoons and the shift of the economy from rural farms to factories and cities. It was the time when our modern two-party system solidified. Toward the end, it was the time when America’s dreams of empire found expression in a war with Spain resulting in the acquisition of Puerto Rico and the Philippines. A growing navy was accompanied by a canal across Panama. The period came to a close with the rise of one of the country’s most dynamic presidents followed by one of its least-inspiring.

In the latter part of the Twentieth century, American Heritage published a collection of histories covering the different periods of American history, and significant aspects of world history. More recently, these works have been re-released in digital form. This volume offers in a highly readable form a survey of the history of the United States between 1866 through 1914.

The period begins with Lincoln’s successor, Andrew Johnson. We get a portrait of an unlikable individual who tended not to listen to others but was dedicated to his own ideas of what it meant to uphold the Constitution and barely escaped a conviction of impeachment. He’s followed by U. S. Grant, one of the most popular presidents whose presidency was marked by high ideals, and low morals. It wasn’t Grant but those around him. Then Rutherford B. Hayes makes the electoral deal that gives him the presidency but spells the end of Reconstruction. We find ourselves wondering what James Garfield would have accomplished had not an assassin’s bullet stopped him after just months in office. His successor Chester Arthur surprised those who despaired with his solid performance and resistance of the New York machine. Then we witness the only president to win two terms, but not consecutively, Grover Cleveland, who gives way to Benjamin Harrison for four years.

While this period marks the rise of rail interests, the industrialists like Andrew Carnegie, and the monopolists like Rockefeller, we witness a succession of one term presidents. Then along comes William McKinley, who seems to be on the way to one more of those presidencies until backed into the Spanish-American war, a one-sided conflict that suddenly made McKinley the president of an imperial power, until once more, early in his second term, an assassin’s bullet ended his solid presidency. And so we get Rough Rider Teddy Roosevelt, who terrified many but turned out to be a great reformer and trustbuster and furthered American power in building a canal across Panama. Then he passed the torched to the trusted friend who really wanted to be Chief Justice rather than Commander in Chief, William Howard Taft. What follows is the sad tale of Roosevelt’s failed attempt to fill the vacuum of his former friend’s lackluster leadership, opening the way to Woodrow Wilson.

Along the way, this history traces the economic ups and downs, the debates about gold standards and silver, and the populism of William Jennings Bryant, the preacher politician who protested a government who would crucify its people on a “cross of gold.”

While historians might dispute some of the particulars, this work offers a great introductory survey that sets various events in their larger context and introduces us to the parade of figure who made this history. I was most impressed with how radically the country was transformed during this time, expanding coast to coast, laying the groundwork for the great power it would become through two global wars.

2 thoughts on “Review: American Heritage History of the Confident Years

  1. I was at the Taft National Historic Site yesterday. One message was that he agreed with Roosevelt on a lot (certainly not everything) but he disagreed on the how. Apparently Roosevelt did a lot by presidential proclamation and Taft preferred the messier but to him more constitutional route of using the legislature.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: The Month in Reviews: August 2022 | Bob on Books

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